Standing at Mont Blanc: Coleridge and Midrash
In the summer of 1802, Samuel Taylor Coleridge hiked in solitude through the mountains of northern England’s Lake District for several days. Soon thereafter he composed a poem, based in part on a prior poem, “Chamounix beym Sonnenaufgang,” by Friederika Brun (1765–1835), which describes the experience of seeing the rising sun illuminate the alpine peak of Mont Blanc. On September 11, Coleridge published his poem in the Morning Post, entitling it “Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni.”1 Originally well received (though even then with important criticisms from Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth), it has fallen, in modern times, into disrepute. And indeed, from most contemporary critical perspectives, it is difficult to read “Hymn before Sunrise” with appreciation, sympathy, or understanding. This critical antagonism is, in part, the ideological residue of a modernist antipathy against religious faith, and more specifically, against the biblical faith that the poem so fervently celebrates. But it is nevertheless undeniable that the poem suffers from a number of critical problems, chief among them its plagiarism of Brun’s poem, its artificial staging in a location Coleridge had never actually seen, and its forced religious enthusiasm and strident expression of faith. Why did Coleridge transfer the scene from northern England to Switzerland? Why did he not acknowledge his debt to Brun? Why such “hectic rhetoric” in his expressions of religious faith?2 Why, in sum, the striking lack of personal authenticity in Coleridge’s poem?
KeywordsReligious Faith Jewish Tradition Creative Imagination Paradise Lost Creation Account
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